Holy Week

One thing that I noticed this year is that Jesus was just asking to be arrested;  Holy week started with a public proclamation that Jesus was the king of the Jews.  This would have drawn the attention of Rome and Herod.  Next thing we see, Jesus caused a scene in the temple, driving out those who were selling animals and changing money; this would have invited the attention of temple security and the Sanhedrin.

Remarkably, nobody arrested Jesus when he created these very public disturbances. Perhaps the authorities were afraid that confronting Jesus in the open would create a riot, but when the Temple guards arrested Jesus they did so at night time, when Jesus had gone off by himself with just a few friends.

What stands out to me most of all, however is the trials.  The Sanhedrin, of course, calls for Jesus’ death; according to John’s gospel, many of them had already decided to make Jesus a scapegoat, because they were afraid that Rome would take away their authority due to unrest — and that an execution would ease the tension between Rome and Judea; there were also the charges of blasphemy, and the fact that Jesus said some rather unpleasant things about the religious leaders of His day.

The Sanhedrin did not have the power to enact the death penalty, so they turned Jesus over to Pilate, with the charge that he claimed to be the king of the Jews; something that was true, as of Palm Sunday, and that Rome should find interesting.  Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, the king of the Galileans, somebody who would be personally threatened by the king of the Jews — and this is where it gets interesting.

Herod was more curious than afraid; Herod had heard of Jesus and he wanted to see a miracle.  Herod Antipas was not like his father who killed the children of Bethlehem over a rumor.  Herod was not afraid of Jesus, and when Jesus didn’t perform for Herod, he sent Herod back to Pilate.

In the trial before Pilate, Pilate questioned Jesus, and he again did not find Jesus’ kingdom a threat to Rome’s power.  In John’s gospel, Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is another place — perhaps, like Herod, Pilate has heard rumors of the revolutionary who speaks of the kingdom of heaven, while telling people to pay their taxes to Rome.  Perhaps Pilate thought of Jesus as a Platonist, speaking of himself as the King of the Kingdom of Ideals — a place where there was justice and peace.

No matter what Pilate thought, he saw no threat in Jesus — it was the threat that the Sanhedrin would go over his head and report that he ignored a revolutionary that brought him to order the Crucifixion of Jesus.

I find it remarkable that some of Jesus’ own disciples were looking forward to a revolution and fighting Rome to either a glorious victory, or a glorious death.  No matter how much Jesus said to them, they never quite understood.  How was it that Herod Antipas and Pilate could understand what Jesus’ disciples could not?  Why were the political powers able to see that the kingdom of Heaven had no desire to establish itself as a political kingdom of this world?

I don’t think Herod and Pilate accepted the kingdom of heaven; I don’t think they wanted any part of it — I think they saw a living Messiah who called for a revolution of hearts and minds, rather than one of swords as a far less dangerous messiah than those who were eager to die fighting Rome.  They may not have accepted the gospel, but they knew that the gospel was not calling for their death.

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Luke 19:28-40 — Palm Sunday

Reading: Luke 19:28-40

Even the rocks will cry out. At the triumphal entry, when Jesus was told to make the people stop praising the King entering Jerusalem, Jesus answered that if the people were silent, then even the rocks would cry out. This passage stands out to me, because it is a reversal of everything that had happened before. Before, whenever anybody saw Jesus as a king, or as anything beyond a traveling preacher, Jesus asked them not to tell anybody about it. Before, it was other people who pressed Jesus to come out and show himself, but this time it was the Pharisees who were asking Jesus to quiet his followers.

When there is a major change, it really stands out, and the reader has to ask about why the change happened. Why did Jesus suddenly accept being praised as a king entering Jerusalem, rather than tell the people to be quiet as He always had before. What made the Triumphal entry different than the numerous times that Jesus had entered Jerusalem before? What are we supposed to get out of this?

I guess it would be fair to say that knowing where the story goes gives us a clue. Palm Sunday is always celebrated the week before Easter; we are going a little off schedule so that we can bring in a few high points of the last week before the Crucifixion; but the point is that the triumphal entry was a point of no turning back.

I know I’m getting ahead of myself, but I think it might be a good time to mention a few of the events that happen in Holy Week. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is associated with Holy week and Jesus predicts that Jerusalem and the temple will be destroyed. Jesus starts speaking in parables where he equates himself with God, and he starts using words like Messiah when speaking.

After the Triumphal Entry, there is no longer a Messianic Secret. Jesus no longer tells people to remain silent, and Jesus speaks and acts openly. Jesus, however, speaks and acts in a way that does not gain support. If Jesus talks about being a king or being a messiah, it is something that invites death from Rome. When Jesus denounces the profiteering in the temple, it is something that challenges the status quo and the religious authorities. When Jesus predicts the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, he speaks in a way that would keep his supporters away. It is almost like Jesus is welcoming the cross, and he is pushing all who would follow him away.

The thing is, the crowds want a messiah, they want somebody to come and make everything right. They everything to be made right again — they want the kingdom of Judah back. The crowds, however, are not everybody. When somebody claims to be king, the Roman governor, Herod and his supporters, and the Sadducees would all be seeking the man’s death.

The odd thing, when I look over Holy Week; Jesus completely owned that he was King, and Messiah, but he also told the people to continue paying taxes to Rome, that Jerusalem would be destroyed, and other things that made it clear that Judah was not His Kingdom. What did Jesus do when he went to the Temple after he entered Jerusalem as a king? He made a whip, turned over tables, and drove out the animals. Jesus did things that would attract the attention of all of the authorities, while driving away those who would be his allies. After an entire ministry of telling people not to say dangerous things, Jesus drew attention to himself in such a way to invite arrest by both by the temple guards and by Roman soldiers; and to isolate himself so that he was vulnerable.

What is clear is that from the moment Jesus entered Jerusalem, he was headed for the cross; whether he would be arrested by the Romans or the Temple security. In one sense I’m not sure why the rocks would cry out, but in another sense I see that this time was the time. Perhaps when Jesus said that even the rocks would cry out, he was expressing that it was too late to stop them; the events leading to good Friday had already been set in motion.

What I do see is that when Jesus revealed himself, he didn’t hold back. Jesus entered Jerusalem as the king, he cleaned out the temple, and he prophetically spoke about the future. When I think of Jesus’ message, I think of what Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well sometime before — that the time was coming when people wouldn’t worship God in one place or another, but in spirit and in truth. Wen Jesus went into Jerusalem, he pulled down the barriers between God and humanity.

Jesus threw out those doing business at the temple — those who stood in the way of those people who could get no closer to Jerusalem’s symbol of God’s presence. I think there is a reason that even the rocks would cry out; Jesus was Emanuel; God with us. If I lived in that time, and I was able to take a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and I went to the temple to worship, a goy like me would not have been able to go beyond the place where the sacrifices were being sold. Even if I were a Jew, I could go a little closer — but even then there would be barriers. Only the High Priest could enter the holy place.

Jesus predicted the day would come when we would not need to take the journey, only to be kept back because only the elite could go to God. The rocks would cry out, because Jesus was about to reveal Himself as God with us; and this week would change the world forever. There are no longer walls surrounding more walls to keep us away from God. The world is no longer divided into people who can approach God and those who cannot because the dividing wall has been torn down. I say the rocks had some good news to cry out about.

Luke 19:1-10

Reading: Luke 19:1-10

Last Wednesday Billy Graham passed away at the age of 99. Billy Graham was the most influential preacher of our lifetime; for decades his ministry defined those who described themselves as Evangelicals and of course influenced everybody else. I’ve read the magazine Christianity Today, on and off, since I’ve been a teenager. Until I moved to Indiana, I never gave a thought to the magazine’s origin. According to the book American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving by Christian Smith and Michael Emerson, Billy Graham said he founded Christianity Today “to plant the evangelical flag in the middle-of-the-road, taking the conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social problems.” Billy Graham’s magazine has been a significant influence in the way I connect Christian thought with social issues; so it is fair to say that in my case he achieved his goal.

I spent somewhat too long reading or listening to tributes to Billy Graham; and there is so much more to read. I was listening to people talking about Billy Graham at 1:00 AM, Thursday morning — and I fell asleep listening to people talking. The tribute that stands out the most to me was NPR’s Steve Inskeep interviewing Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore about the life and ministry of Billy Graham.

What stood out is that they talked about ways that Billy Graham had changed. Specifically, they talked how at first, he didn’t question segregation, and his earlier `crusades’ were segregated. At a certain point, he refused to speak to a segregated audience, and eventually he even said he regretted that he was not one of the preachers who joined Martian Luther King Jr. in his march to Selma. In the course of a few years, Graham’s heart was changed, and he became a voice for equality.

Russell Moore said that what he thinks happened to change Billy Graham’s heart was the message that he preached every day. Moore tells us that Graham preached that All humans are created in God’s image, and that the gospel is for all people. Moore sees this change as a way that Graham was becoming more consistent with the gospel that he was preaching.

I listened to Russel Moore’s brief explanation, and I thought about how right it is. It might be right, but it is hard to apply these points of the gospel to our behavior when the gospel is countercultural. It is very hard to include those people that society demands are excluded. Though Paul says: “There is no Jew, nor Greek, nor free, nor slave, nor male, nor female” — there are no excluded groups, it is too easy to fall back on fear, prejudice, or social conventions. I think it is fair to say that in much of the Christian world, Billy Graham is already seen as one of our saints. Any good story of a Saint tells us where the person went wrong, and how God changed the person. We are all sinners, the gospel is for all of us. Like many people, a simple part of the gospel caused Graham to change himself, and to eventually stand up to an evil in the culture he grew up in.

In Sunday School, we talked about Zacchaeus the tax collector. Our lesson book talked about the social stigma on tax collectors; something that we all feel to one extent as we must fill out our tax forms but the distaste people had for tax collectors was far worse than what we feel about our taxes. Judah was occupied by Rome, and these taxes were collected for the Romans. Nobody wanted to pay to keep the Roman soldiers in their streets. The tax collector was a collaborator, and people suspected that he was corrupt, collecting more taxes than were due so he could keep some for himself.

Tax collectors are mentioned 11 times in the gospel of Luke, which is enough that you might call it a theme. The first mention is when tax collectors approach John the Baptist asks what they should do. John does not tell them to get a different job, like I might — but instead simply tells them to only collect what the law requires. One of the disciples Jesus calls is the tax collector Levi; and after calling Levi he goes to meal hosted by Levi, where the guest list is Levi’s co-workers.

Just last week, we talked about the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son. If you remember, the parables were told in answer to the Pharisees complaining that Jesus was teaching tax collectors and `sinners.’ When Jesus spoke of the older brother who complained about the party for the younger brother coming home, and refusing to come in; I think that the Pharisees were quite aware that Jesus was talking about them.

The point is, when Jesus accepted Zacchaeus, and invited himself over for dinner, this is not a surprise. Jesus had already shown that he was not the Messiah that people expected. Jesus made friends with the collaborators; which isn’t what you expect a revolutionary who will run the Romans out of the country to do. Jesus not only accepted them, but he made it clear that the message he brought included them. It is as Paul wrote in Ephesians — Jesus tears down the dividing wall.

If you look at Jesus’ disciples, you see how much he tears down that wall. Levi was a tax collector, and Simon was a Zealot. Within the 12, there was a Roman collaborator, and a freedom fighter who would have gladly killed Levi, and then would have gone to bed feeling that he did good work for his people. The gospel is bigger than country, or politics or any of the divisions we have made for ourselves. Yes, Jesus is harsh to leaders who’s institutions keep divisions — but Jesus is gentle with the people who live in society. He is harsh with those who maintain the walls because his role is to tear down the dividing wall.

I grew up with this gospel; because it is what is written in scripture, and because it is what I learned from those who preached the gospel. A few days ago, we lost a preacher who’s influence cannot be over-estimated but his message rings out clear. Jesus came for the salvation of all humanity; and in Christ we all have the same hope for salvation, no matter whether we are a Pharisee, a tax collector, a sinner or a zealot. This is what I read in scripture, and this is the gospel I’ve been blessed to hear preached throughout my life. May we all hold onto this gospel, and never rebuild those walls that Jesus tore down on the cross.

Luke 15:11-32: The Father’s two sons

Reading: Luke 15:11-32

Today’s reading comes in a set of three stories — each tells of a person who lost something and how the person reacts to what was lost. The first story talks about a shepherd who is responsible for 100 sheep; and when he counts the sheep, he only counts 99, so he leaves the 99 behind and searches for the one missing one. When he finds the one, he celebrates finding what was lost. The second story tells of a woman who has 10 silver coins, and when she finds that she lost one, she searches, and she cleans her house. When she finds the coin, she celebrates and even tells her neighbors that she found her lost coin. The third story, follows the same pattern. A man loses his younger son, but when his younger son returns to him, repentant, he celebrates because what was once lost is found.

I read these parables, and I think about how true it is; when I lose something, I search for it even if it is not worth the search. In the morning, if I reach for my glasses, and they are not where I thought I left them, I search clumsily and blindly until I find them on the floor by the dresser. If I misplace my keys, or wallet, I search the house, dig through the hamper search my coat pockets. The thing is, even if I lose a screw or a nail while working on something, I don’t consider that I can buy a whole box of them for a few dollars, but I end up searching through the grass, trying to find something that cost far less than my time searching is worth. We all hate to lose things; even those those things that are not worth a lot. We take joy in finding what was lost. It is remarkable to realize that this quality is one where humans will fit into heaven.

In the first two parables, Jesus ends the story by saying that there is more joy in heaven when a sinner repents than there is for those who have no need to repent. This lesson leads to the story of the father with two sons. One son is good and works on the farm and remains faithful to his family. The younger son demands his share of the property now, and then runs off and wastes the money becoming destitute. When the younger son is hungry and desperate enough to return home, the father throws a huge party; saying: “the one who was lost is found, the one who was dead is alive.”

The story that tells of the Father’s compassion for his ungrateful son, who just learned a embarrassingly expensive life lesson. The father has the joy of finding what was lost and having a son who was dead to him returned. Seeing that the son has returned, he had every reason to celebrate, for a son is more valuable than a coin, or a single head of livestock.

We notice, however, that the lost son is unlike the lost sheep, or the lost coin. In order for the father to welcome the son back, he had to forgive a rather serious offense. This story begins with the younger son asking for his inheritance; he cannot wait for his father to die. Such a demand is rude to say the least, but the younger son takes his inheritance, and this means that he and his father are dead to one another.

When we consider how much more the son is worth than a coin or one head of livestock, it is easy to see why the father rejoices when the son comes to his senses, swallows his pride and comes home. When we consider the severeness of the insult that the younger son made to his father — we realize that the father has to forgive the son. Forgiveness is hard. Because the father loves his son he rejoices that he son is found rather than holding on to the insult and turning the son away.

When we are less than faithful; when we are selfish, rude, stupid, and self-destructive, we can see how the father welcomed the younger son, and know what to expect if we turn back to God. We believe that God forgives. We believe that heaven rejoices; that when somebody comes to his senses, realizes that there is gospel offers us a better way, and repents. We believe that God forgives and celebrates.

The lesson of the father taking back the younger son is a great lesson, but this is not the parable of a father and a son, it the parable of a father and two sons. When the younger son demanded his inheritance now, the older son stayed on the farm, worked in the fields, and was a good son to his father. When the father throws a party for the younger son, the older son protests that this isn’t fair, and he was right; it isn’t fair. As the father tells the older son, “it is all yours” — the inheritance had already been divided, and the younger son spent everything that he got. The fattened calf came out of the older son’s property. The father also told the older son that this is something that is worth celebrating.

It is very human for us to put more effort than it is worth into finding something that we lost. It is also very human for we to want things to be fair. The older son was right about the unfairness. The younger son was not punished for his rudeness. The elder brother was not rewarded for his faithfulness. Any trouble that the younger son came came up against was his own fault; and if the father were to give anything at all to the younger son, it would have to come out of the older son’s property. The elder brother was right to complain that it is not fair. Grace, mercy and forgiveness are not fair. One of the hard lessons Jesus teaches us is that God chooses mercy over fairness.

We are church people — this means that we are most likely to be in the position of the older brother. All of us need to get over what is fair, and instead pray that the younger son comes to his senses, and comes back home. We need to pray that our heart can be more like the father. We need to pray that we can leave the field and join the party to welcome our brother home. It is too easy to be sanctimonious; to feel like our faith is about following rules, going to church and doing the right things; but we forget all of that all these things we do are not for God but for us. We should celebrate every life God touches instead of feeling jealous that God’s love is so generous.

This is the parable of the jealous older brother, the ungrateful younger brother, and the rejoicing father. We know that the attitude of heaven is like the father. We know that both brothers were wrong — but, if I am honest with myself I can see myself in both brothers. Sometimes I am the younger brother. Sometimes I make the kind of stupid and expensive mistakes that destroy my life and my relationships. Sometimes I am the jealous older brother. I see what my younger brother did, and feel that it is unfair how well my father treats him. I know full well that I should not be like either brother. I don’t want to suffer the embarrassment of the younger brother; and when it comes time to celebrate I want to be able to enjoy the party unlike the older brother.

The hard thing about the older brother is that he knows he is the good son. When the younger brother behaved badly the older brother fulfilled his duty; but even though he acted correctly externally, his heart was wrong. The father forgave, but the brother held a grudge. I think, in many ways, it is more dangerous to be like the older brother than the younger one. The younger brother had to know that he was acting badly, and there were many opportunities for him to repent; and eventually hunger forced the issue. Nobody saw any reason for the older brother to repent; and there was nothing to force his repentance. Nobody knew the elder brother held a grudge until the homecoming party for the younger brother.

If we stand in the place of the older brother, may God touch our hearts and teach us to forgive just as God forgives. I believe that the day is coming when the younger brother will return home. When he comes home I hope and pray that we will share in the Father’s excitement and that we will celebrate with our father. I pray that our hearts will be ready to rejoice whenever we see an unexpected face in heaven.

 

Luke 10:25-37: Who is my Samaritan?

Reading: Luke 10:25-37

This is not the first time I’ve spoken on the Samaritans. When we went through John, I spoke about where the Samaritans came from and their rivalry with the people of Judah.  I don’t think it is necessary to go into so much detail as we have in the past but, I will say that the people of Judah had an irrational hatred for Samaritans. Hate was somehow built into the culture and it had been building since they returned from the Babylonian captivity.

You might remember, my sympathy is with the Samaritans. Basically, what they did to earn the hatred was survive the Assyrian conquest, and then miss the Babylonian captivity. The grievances between Judah and Samaria come from religious arguments. Both sides accused the other of too much foreign influence, each claiming to have the better and purer understanding of God and the more correct way of worshiping God. Doubtlessly, when somebody was willing to admit Samaritans are from the stock of Israel, that would add the resentment of the kingdom splitting in two rather than reminding the children of Judah that the children of Joseph are sons of Israel, just as they are.

Of course, I don’t think the exact historical details are as important as the biases of the culture, and the person who Jesus was speaking to. Jesus said this to answer the question: “Who is my neighbor.” The question was important, because it is necessary to know who your neighbor is when interpreting the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The man asked, because he wanted to know who was not his neighbor.

Jesus gave an answer that surprised everybody. He told a story of a man who was robbed and left for dead, and who was ignored by the best of society; though they saw his suffering they ignored him and left him for dead. The story made clear that those who were considered authorities in the law did not always follow it, or if they did, they saw the man bleeding on the road, and they left him still bleeding. If they believed themselves to love their neighbor, they somehow did not see this man in need as a neighbor.

Then a Samaritan came, somebody who shouldn’t have even been on this road because he was not welcome. He saw the man, tended his wounds, and took him to an inn where he could recover and payed for his stay. The Samaritan was the hero of the story who not only made sure that the man was taken to a safe place, but went above and beyond what could be expected.

When Jesus asked: “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers”, the response was “the one who showed him mercy.” The expert in the Law who asked “who is my neighbor” could not bear to say the word Samaritan when he said that the man who showed mercy behaved the way one should behave as a neighbor. It must have stung a little when Jesus said: “Go and do likewise.” It is a hard lesson to learn that we should be more like somebody we hate without any cause.

When the Lawyer asked “Who is my neighbor,” he sought to justify himself.  Jesus answered quite cleverly, so that the lawyer couldn’t exclude anybody. The people of Judah hated the Samaritan to the point that a respectable person like this man was unwilling to answer “Samaritan” when a story was told that painted one in a positive light. The Samaritans were, like the people of Judah, an occupied people. As much hate as there was, there was no rational reason for it. Samaria was no less occupied by Rome than Judah. The Samaritans had no real power; no real power to harm the people of Judah; they were a people who it cost nothing to hate. There was reason to hate Romans, but the Romans had power and the will to punish their enemies. Samaria had none of that.

The Samaritan showed that he loved his neighbor — the person in need, even though he was out of his country, and in a country that hated him simply because he breathed. Who is your neighbor? Clearly, the neighbor isn’t defined by feelings, nor by our bias, nor by an understanding of friends and enemies. Our neighbors are those around us, especially those who are in need. The priest and the Levite saw their neighbor, and they passed by. The Samaritan saw a person who, on any other day would most likely be hostile — but a person who was bleeding on the road, and he acted with compassion to his neighbor. Jesus told the Lawyer to act like the Samaritan, which means, be a good neighbor when there is need, even if there is hostility.

I know that I live in a nation that from the day it declared independence declared that “All men are created equal.” I’d like to say that we are much better than the people in the Bible; we are fair to everybody. We do not hate anybody without cause, but we are generous and welcoming. As much as I’d like to say that, I can’t say it without lying. I know we have always had people who have no power who we look down on and treat as enemies even though they have done nothing to us.

When I think of who our Samaritans are, one group that comes to mind are the African Americans. Many of us are old enough to remember the days before Jim Crow ended, desegregation became law, and voting rights was enforced. There were the 13th and 14th amendments that stated the black man had rights, but these words were ignored and circumvented as much as possible. I know that at least one person in this congregation knows what a sunset town is, and that there were a number of sunset towns in Indiana.

Today, I see many people complain if a black person suggests that the systems of oppression are still in place, or if he suggests that our society and our law do not value black people’s lives. I’ve seen people suggest that saying “Black lives matter” is morally equivalent, and equally hateful to belonging to the KKK. Now, I am not in a place to judge when systemic racism is a thing of the past but, I think that even when it appears to be past, it is best to listen to those who suffered under it.

Black Slavery existed in what is now the United States since the end of the 16th century, it remained legal from the time it was started until it was ended by the 13th amendment in 1665, or about 250 years of slavery. This 250 years of slavery were followed by voter suppression, segregation, and other systemic laws to make sure that the Black population was kept down until the federal government intervened in 1965; this is 350 years of slavery, silencing and oppression which only ended within the lifetime of most of the people in this room.

Considering how recently our laws have changed, even if I could see no evidence of systemic racism, I would want to give the African American community a lot of patience when they want to air their grievances. I certainly would not suggest that they were no different than the Klu-Klux Klan because they are afraid they will be treated the same way they had been treated for over three centuries.

Unfortunately, I can’t say everything is better. I see people claiming that Jim Crow never happened, that there was no voter suppression, and that congressman John Lewis does not know history when he talks about the passage of the voting rights act of 1965 because Voting rights came in the 14th amendment in 1868. John Lewis of course was at the Selma march. Lewis was clubbed in the head and his skull was fractured over voting rights; this historical event is unforgettable for him. Even worse, I see people trying to pretend slavery never happened, or that slavery was no different than when working class Europeans payed for passage to the New World by signing up for a term of labor with a scheduled end date. I see people denying the truth.

At the start of this month, which is celebrated as Black history month, the state legislature had a vote on whether or not to have a “Hate crime law;” We still don’t have one, the vote was no. Another thing that marked the start of this month was a branch of the KKK distributed recruitment fliers just a couple blocks from the state capitol at Memorial circle. We can’t pretend that racism is a thing of the past when it is right in front of our faces.

Another group that comes to mind as potential Samaritans is the indigenous people of the Americas. Our government has consistently violated treaties and broke promises. Our policy to the Native Americans was one of `removal’. A more modern word for this would be genocide. “Indians” were not guaranteed the right to vote until 1957. Even today, Native Americans suffer violence at a disproportionate rate; half of Native American women have been raped, and 80% of them have suffered some sort of violent attack. A federal court decision in 1978 decided that Native courts have no jurisdiction over non-natives. Unfortunately, this means when somebody goes on a reservation and commits a hate crime, the tribe has to rely on federal courts. Too often, it means that crimes against natives are ignored. I’ve even heard of the Navajo congressman Eric Descheenie in the Arizona State legislature hearing slurs yelled against him, and people calling him `illegal’ right at the capitol earlier this year.

I’ve observed in depictions of immigrants as dangerous and politicians saying `illegal’ while working to take away the methods of legal immigration that all of the people in anti-immigrant advertisements look a lot like my wife or my father-in-law. Their significant Native American ancestry is quite visible. This rhetoric seems to me like we want to make sure that we keep out those who look to much like those that our ancestors `removed’.

I look at White Americans, which is a group that clearly includes myself, and I realize that we have Samaritans, people who did us no harm that we hate for no good reason, and I speculate that so many of us hate because we are ashamed to admit that not everything in history is pleasant. We don’t want to admit a shameful history — and we definitely don’t want to examine ourselves and see if we are still doing the same evil things that we did in the past. I think there might be a fear that we will not be forgiven, and we will be treated the way our ancestors treated others.

Who is our neighbor? Our neighbor is our fellow human being, a person created in God’s image. Where our culture teaches us hate, we must remember that if we hate those created in God’s image, we cannot honestly claim to love God. Jesus told the Lawyer to go and do the good that the Samaritan did; hopefully we can hear these words as well.

Luke 9:28-36 — Transfiguration

Reading: Luke 9:28-36

Today’s reading begins with “8 days after he said these things”. “These things” are what we spoke about last week — this passage follows directly after when Peter confessed that Jesus was the messiah, and Jesus told the disciples not to say anything about it and that if they were to follow him they would need to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him.

Reading the gospels, we find that we get used to some pretty strange things. One moment, the disciples are listening to Jesus tell them that they will be going to their deaths, and the disciples seem to hear this without blinking — certainly, they didn’t run away at this point. Last week somebody in our Sunday School class observed that because they expected Jesus to be a freedom fighter who would re-establish Israel, clearly when they decided to follow Him, they were willing to die if they failed to beat Rome.

A little over a week after Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, we see Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up a mountain to see Jesus start glowing and sitting and talking with Moses and Elijah. Peter is ready to build a set of structures, likely because he imagined a shrine where people could come to the place where Jesus, Moses and Elijah met and talked together — then a voice comes out of the heavens telling Peter to that Jesus is His Son, to listen to Him.

We hear this story, and we say that it is the transfiguration, as if giving it a name explains what happened. It is one of these stories that all of us know from Sunday School — but, we really don’t discuss why it is significant, nor why Jesus decided to show His glory to Peter, James and John. What I do know, the lesson first lesson that I have from this is that this event, along with the Baptism, the Resurrection, and Christ’s ascension into Heaven tell us that Jesus is something more than just a man — it is, one might say, the Gospels reminding us that Jesus is, just as the Voice in the sky tells us, the Son of God.

Jesus is Divine. This is one of the Christian beliefs I find it most difficult to talk about, because I really don’t have any idea what it is like to be God. Traditionally Christians believe, and scripture teaches us, that we know God through knowing Jesus. We are not nearly big enough to correctly imagine what it is like to be God, so, saying that Jesus is Divine does not, by itself teach us much about Jesus; because what people imagine God to be like is often quite unlike what we see in Jesus. Jesus is divine — by knowing Jesus, we know God. If we see a conflict between God and between Jesus, we know that we are mistaken. God’s character is revealed to us through Jesus.

How does Jesus correct our view of God? When we look at the universe, it is beautiful, it gives us many resources, but it is also harsh and unforgiving. If we imagine a God simply from the universe that we observe, we can easily imagine a god that lacks compassion, a god that favors the powerful and ignore the cries of the oppressed.

Jesus is different. When Jesus came, he was born in a barn, not in a palace. When Jesus sent a message to John the Baptist, he the message included that he was preaching good news to the poor. Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, and was gentle with the powerless. Jesus could speak harshly, but his harshness was reserved for those who had positions of wealth and power. Jesus wasn’t fair, He was merciful and compassionate. Jesus gave grace to those who needed it.

More than that, we imagine God as transcendent. It is easy to picture God as being so far removed from our suffering that God does not even notice. Just as the universe is unforgiving, the universe is also uncaring and aloof. Jesus isn’t aloof. The first bed Jesus slept in was a feeding trough. Jesus was a refugee from a government that didn’t want him from his birth. When Jesus was grown, and people felt that what he said had value to the point he was called Rabbi — he chose to spend his time with the peasants rather than the scholars; and when there were children who would come to him, he didn’t send them away because the adults were talking — he blessed them, and called for them to be included. Jesus consistently showed compassion and gave his efforts to those seen as the least. This ethic was strong enough that Jesus even made exceptions to Divinely given law to heal on the Sabbath.

If the lesson that we get from the transfiguration is that Jesus is more than just the Anointed one, but God, then we learn an important lesson — one that influences everything that we believe. What we learn from the Voice from the sky is quite important — and, that lesson has long been enough for me.

Michael Kibbe, professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute, wrote about the Transfiguration for Christianity Today’s July/August 2017 issue, and he brought out something I never thought of before; Dr. Kibbe tells us that the Transfiguration is a little hint of our future — it is not just about Jesus being God, and showing us what we don’t know about God, but it is also about giving us a glimpse of what it means to be human.

Elijah and Moses are not Divine, but they were substantially there, no less than the living Jesus — and they also glowed with glory. The disciples were not seeing ghosts, they were seeing three glorified people talking. If there were no Voice from the sky, this event would not have showed that Jesus was any more than these ancients who God called and anointed to fulfill a purpose. The voice tells us that Jesus is greater than Moses or Elijah — but, the voice does not change the fact that these men were physically there, in glorified bodies.

Paul writes about this in I Corinthians 15; reminding us that the bodies that we have now are not suited for eternity. When we imagine our coming resurrection, we’d be very wrong to imagine that it looks like a Zombie movie. The bodies that we look forward to will be those that are suited for eternity — something that we have no experience with, and we cannot describe. Dr. Kibbe’s suggestion that the transfiguration shows us what it means to be human is a suggestion that Peter, James, and John got a little peek at those resurrection bodies.

The gospel is something that is to be received as good news. In some ways, this good news is hard to see — because the gospel dashes one false hope after another. Jesus rejects the role of earthly king, and dashes the hope that Rome will be overthrown. Jesus tears down the idea that people can find safety in wealth or position; which is something that would be seen as bad news to those who feel safe with money or power. The Gospel gives all of us hope — but it also reminds us that we too often put our hope in the wrong things, things that do not last.

One hope that we do have is that if we follow Jesus, we end up where Jesus is. When Moses and Elijah were standing, in glorified bodies, talking to Jesus — the three disciples with Jesus got a glimpse of what the future is for us humans. Enough time had passed that even Moses’ bones must have been broken down into dust — but, there is he is standing around and talking with Jesus and Elijah. Peter, James, John, and you and me look forward to a similar body. Dr. Michael Kibbe taught me that the transfiguration isn’t just a message about who Jesus is — it is a reminder of the Good News that we look forward to the resurrection of the dead.

 

Luke 9:18-26: Following Jesus to the cross

Reading: Luke 9:18-26

What stands out to me is that when Peter declared Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus let the disciples know right away that this meant something very different than he was expecting. He gave them a warning about the cost of discipleship that would have likely made me go back to my fishing boat and continue in the work that I learned from my father. “Follow me and die” just does not seem very encouraging.

This passage, however is quite literal. Jesus underwent great suffering and rejection; we believe that though the authorities put him to death, he rose from the dead on the third day; and of the 12 disciples, tradition tells us that only John died on old age. For some examples of how Jesus’ disciples died: Peter and Andrew were crucified, Matthew was stabbed, Thomas was impaled, Matthias (Judas’ replacement) burned alive.

Peter’s confession is remarkable — but even more remarkable is that Peter and the others continued to follow and teach Jesus even after it was clear that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that they were hoping for. Somehow Peter and the others realized that the gospel was much bigger than the concerns of Israel, and followed the gospel as it took him all the way to his death in Rome. They truly did take up their cross and follow Jesus, all the way to their deaths.

Of course, when Jesus first said this to the disciples, it went right over their heads. None of the disciples were willing to take up their crosses when Jesus took up his — instead they all scattered. When Jesus was raised from the dead, one of the disciples asked if it was time for Jesus to take on Rome, and re-establish the kingdom of Israel. Even though Jesus was their teacher, it took them a long time to unlearn those things that they were certain about before meeting Jesus. We can learn new ideas — but learning can be slow.

One thing that I’ve learned about the phrase “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” is that this is not exactly literal advice. Andrew and Peter might have taken up their cross, literally, once. Taking up a literal cross is something that you can’t do twice, let alone daily. Clearly, there is a metaphorical meaning as the literal is impossible.

William Penn spent a great deal of time meditating on this passage during an involuntary stay in the tower of London back in 1668. While he was locked up in the tower, he wrote a work that was published with the title No Cross No Crown. I read this book while I was a student at Barclay, and my initial evaluation of the book was that he could have made the same points with far fewer words. I liked the book, but I would have liked better to have read an abridged version.

I mention this book, because I’ve read it and cannot unread it. I cannot think of what the cross of Christ means to Christians without thinking about William Penn’s extensive commentary. Now, I’m not going to give a chapter outline, or get into the details, but I will admit that anything I say on this topic is bound to dialogue with Penn’s work; so, I’ll tell you what I learned from this book.

A large portion of Penn’s book is about how we must fight against the sin nature — how we are prideful lazy gluttons, and we need to crucify our sin nature so that we can follow Christ. As about a third of the book deals with how much sin fills the lives of people, even in a nation filled with Church growing Christians; and I really don’t want to talk about every example of sinful behavior, and talk come to the same conclusion every time.

The big thing is that many professing Christians don’t really want saved from their sin. They don’t wish, in the words of Paul, to die to their sin nature so they can be raised in Christ. Again, if we do want saved from our sin — we’d rather that the whole tendency be taken away, so we no longer struggle with temptation. The idea that the Christian life isn’t just dying to sin once so we can be raised up — but instead to take up the cross daily is a challenging gospel. It is not the good news that we are looking for. We want it to be easy; but this daily denial of self is hard work. Crosses are heavy, and they are not comfortable. We follow a master who was tempted without falling into sin, and that is a tough road to walk.

By number of words, this was the biggest point of the book, and I nearly didn’t finish the book because 9 chapters that I can summarize in a single paragraph is a bit much. It was not exactly groundbreaking, but it did invite me to question two of the messages that I heard (or misheard) in my youth. The first version was one which treated salvation as Christ taking away the consequences of our sin at the final judgment, but doing precious little about our present lives. The second version was one where some are miraculously made perfect, so they no longer need to struggle with temptation because they are entirely sanctified.

The idea that I have to keep taking up the cross, that this living sacrifice keeps struggling to get off the altar is somewhat encouraging on those days when it is obvious that going to the altar and praying for sanctification just didn’t seem to take. Sometimes I am proud, sometimes I am envious. Sometimes I am wrathful and forgiveness seems the furthest thing from my mind. I’m not always a good Christian — sometimes, it seems that sin nature needs put to death again, so I can be raised again in Christ. I do need to take up my cross daily — because, so often I find I need salvation not only for eternity, but also for today.

The most surprising thing in Penn’s book is found in Chapter 4 where he tells us that we don’t only need to deny our unlawful self, but our lawful self as well. Penn talks about how Jesus called the disciples away from their good and necessary trades so they could devote their life to something bigger. The disciples had to give up something that was good, so they could become something that was bigger than themselves. If Peter and Andrew would have stayed in the boat and let Jesus walk by, they would have continued to do something good, but would have missed out on something great.

It is easy to see how we have to put our sinful flesh to death, and deny ourselves when our first impulse is to say or do something that is harmful to others; it is far more difficult for us to put aside something that is beneficial because we feel called to something higher. It is more surprising to see the disciples giving up their fishing boats and following Jesus than it is to see sinners repenting of their sins and changing their lives.

It is a hard teaching, because it goes against what we know. How stupid were the disciples to leave their trades! When people try to make something better, they are often told “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Even Shakespeare said the things we say in his 103rd sonnet: “Were it not sinful then, striving to mend, To mar the subject that before was well.” You see, when things are good enough, we are afraid of anything that is unknown. If God calls us to something different, we are afraid that we will be worse off for it. If we want Jesus to be Lord, and the Lord is calling us to something different than the good we are now experiencing; then we have to sacrifice something much harder than sacrificing the sin in our life — we have to sacrifice what is good while hoping for what is better.

Friend William Penn gave me a lot to think about. Scripture tells us that God desires obedience, not sacrifice — but, for those of us who are living sacrifices, sometimes obedience is sacrifice. I wish I could tell you that walking with Jesus is the easier path, but I cannot. My 17th century teacher wrote these lessons while imprisoned by his Christian government. The path Jesus walked included a stop at the cross and some time in the grave. The path Peter and Andrew walked as they followed Jesus brought each to death on the Cross just like their master — their life would have been far more comfortable if they had just stayed on the boat and kept fishing.

What Jesus teaches isn’t always easy. It is not easy for us to deny ourselves, It is not easy to take up a cross once, let alone daily — but Jesus promises that those who lose their life for Christ’s sake will be saved. Sometimes the gospel does not give easy news; it is not easy to hear that the path to salvation can be difficult. It is not easy to hear that we might very well follow Jesus to our deaths, just as many have before us; but the promise of salvation is there. Jesus didn’t stay on the cross, Jesus didn’t stay in the grave. The good news isn’t that we get out of the hard parts, the promise is that if we follow Jesus all the way from the cross, then we also share in the Resurrection. The good news is that if we follow Jesus to the end, then where we end up will be where Jesus is.